Thursday, July 29, 2010


Despite the great flow of traffic in and out of Mexico City on buses, trucks, and cars, it can be a difficult place to escape. I have always found it hard to break the inertia that holds me in the D.F. Yet when I do leave, as I did this week for a very pleasant visit to Queretaro, I am reminded that outside the wall of humanity that encircles Mexico City, there is clear air, open sky, and tranquility.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Huevo

Mexico City's vernacular is extraordinarily rich, if often crude. Evolving slang produces expressions that baffle outsiders, such as "que pedo?", a substitution of "que paso?" that translates literally as "what fart?" Jousting through complex wordplays, called "albures", seek to embarrass, much like a knock-knock joke where the punchline involves sexually emasculating your companion.

The language used to talk politics is often laced with nuance, and more often brashly colorful. When describing the cancellation of operating concessions during an interview, Carlos Grados remarked that it was done by "producto de gallina" (hen's product). Then, chuckling, asked me, if I knew what "producto de gallina was," before exclaiming "A huevo!" Mexican politics have long been defined by contests of "huevos" ("balls"), but the games were often subtle. When discussing the benefits of being on the Executive Committee of the Alianza de Camioneros, Grados simply commented that, "well, there were advantages." Then, he winked.

(The background of my meeting with Carlos Grados:

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Painting the Sky

Some days you wish you could just paint the sky blue...

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Sometimes you hit blank walls. The mid- to late- twentieth-century archives here are of notoriously mottled quality, and sometimes all you can find are tiny fragments, a notecard or a loose sheet alluding to some now-hazy event. Too often the information you want is simply gone, torn away, discarded, unrecorded. Even when there is a richness of documents, it can be near impossible to piece together the original picture. Even after last week's breakthroughs, I wonder whether I will ever really feel as though I understand the story I am telling.

(Last week's incredible experience discussed here:

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Living History

When I began my dissertation research, I anticipated developing the project entirely through official archival sources. The study's focus, the Alianza de Camioneros, seemed too remote, too transient, too informal to have any traces remaining anywhere outside of documents and newspapers. Though I had agonizingly vivid dreams of finding the archives of the Alianza, my rational mind accepted that was impossible. Similarly, most of the Alianza's members were long dead, and their families were undoubtedly lost in a confused sea of surnames.

Success in history often relies on serendipity. Nothing else can explain how, on Thursday afternoon, I found myself sitting in the dining room of Carlos Grados Garcia, who served on the Alianza de Camioneros' last executive committee. He is 80 years old, recovering from stomach cancer and agonizingly gaunt, but his memory was as crisp as the old photos he showed me as he recounted with marked pride his meetings with former mayors. There is something powerful about meeting people whose names you have spent years excavating from the dusts of history; it is equally powerful to witness their enthusiasm for that enterprise. Theirs was not a history that was painted into murals; neither Carlos nor his compadre and fellow Alianza member Ruben Guevara ever anticipated that someone would want to talk to them about their lives as camioneros, but, as Ruben said at the end of the interview, "How good it is that you came, because it has made us remember."

Sunday, July 11, 2010


The World Cup has a special capacity to conjure communities, to fill public spaces with the bonds of shared hopes, joys, traditions, and jerseys. It is distinctly poignant when they are the faces of expats, precipitating out of the anonymous mists of the city to gather in celebration. In a place where one seems almost to dissolve in a massive cauldron of humanity, these occasions are important rituals. For expatriate Spaniards celebrating today's World Cup championship, the heart of the celebration was Plaza Cibeles, a physical replica of a plaza in Madrid and for today an emotional replica as well.

Thursday, July 8, 2010


I walked an hour to an archive yesterday morning. When I got there, it was closed. I walked another hour back home. Stores, archives, libraries, restaurants, galleries - everything here seems to operate according to a cryptic rhythm incomprehensible to outsiders. It can be frustrating.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


A massive thunderstorm knocked power out for 12 hours last night. The power did not, however, go out on Sunday: the PRI accepted defeats in Sinaloa, Oaxaca, and Puebla. There was no attempt to repeat the fraud of 1988 when an invented computer failure--'se cayo el sistema' was the shrugging explanation of its priísta architects--possibly denied Cuauhtemoc Cardenas the presidency and certainly denied posterity the truth. But the three gubernatorial defeats the PRI suffered are neither significant wounds nor signs of a flourishing democracy. For the PRI, the losses are papercuts from paper tigers, and for Mexican political life they reveal a still-unconsolidated electoral democracy.

The three states where the PRI was defeated represented particular, localized cases where opposition coalitions formed around identifiable, non-ideological issues: namely, defeating a specific PRI representative. In other words, the PRI lost only when people voted AGAINST it, not when people voted FOR something else, and this only in three particular cases. Such a voting pattern resembles 2000 when the amorphous promise of "change" was the strongest plank in Vicente Fox's platform and one that allowed for a broad ideological spectrum of support. That in 2010 the PRI is only being defeated by similar strategies underscores the weakness, both political and ideological, of the opposition after 10 years of supposed democracy and does not offer the hope of more effective governance. In strategic terms, the PRI has little reason to fear that a PAN-PRD alliance will form on the national level for the 2012 presidential election, since ambitions within each party would prevent this. Moreover, this is not the first time the PRI has lost the governorship of states where it was previously strong, and in most of those cases they have regained power in the next election cycle.

In short, Sunday showed neither a weakened PRI nor a vibrant opposition to it.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


Today, Sunday, July 4, Mexico holds elections for a number of important governorships and mayoralties, as well as other local positions. More than perhaps any election since the 1950s, these have been marred by gruesome violence against candidates and supporters of all parties. That many of these events--the assassination of PRI gubernatorial candidate Rodolfo Torres Cantu in Tamaulipas, the dumping of a headless body outside the house of a candidate for the mayorality of Ciudad Juarez--are directly tied to drug gangs has again raised realistic fears that neither the elections, nor the governments they yield, will be insulated from the persuasive power of narco-money and narco-violence. Four years after President Felipe Calderon initiated his ill-advised and poorly conceived attempt to defeat the drug gangs, the chickens have come home.

That these elections are likely to result in a sweeping victory for the PRI speaks to two major aspects of Mexican political life. First, there is widespread disenchantment after 10 years of PAN government, the product of ultimately ineffectual domestic economic policies, the failure to secure immigration reform in the U.S., and frustration with the hollow promises of electoral democracy underscored by a vitiated 2006 presidential election. Moreover, both the PAN and the left-wing opposition PRD, are political parties in disarray, riven by infighting, lacking charismatic leadership, and unable to build local bases of support on ideological grounds. Both the PAN and the PRD have always been more than willing to welcome locally powerful defectors regardless of beliefs, and in 2010 these two ideologically opposed parties took the precipitous step of forming anti-PRI electoral alliances in many states. Mexican politics has always been, at root, about local power cultivated through clientelism and interest representation, but the PAN-PRD union belies claims about the advance of Mexican democracy. The popular disenchantment that resulted has had the effect of driving voters back to the PRI--"at least they knew how to govern"--or driving them away from politics entirely.

Large-scale depoliticization only favors the PRI, marking the second major aspect revealed in these elections: very little has changed. Intimidation of candidates and supporters in rural areas and the use of political machines to mobilize and control voters were the hallmarks of the PRI's 71 year rule and there is little evidence that these practices are in any way diminished. If anything, they have become more necessary for all three parties. In other words, the democratization of political life has meant the democratization of political tactics. This is not to exculpate the PRI's henchmen, who, given that party's sweeping control of most of the country, engage in far more chicanery than operative for the PRD or PAN.

A massive PRI victory today, especially if it retains control of Puebla and Oaxaca where the outgoing governors have been nationally repudiated, will suggest that the party will capture the presidency in 2012. That the prospect of a PRI president does not evoke the sense of near-revulsion and popular rejection that it did in 2006, indicates both the failure of opposition government and the persistence of political practices on grassroots level. Although there is little to suggest, however, that the PRI could provide more effective leadership than their PAN predecessors, there is equally little reason to believe that the new generation of PRI leaders would prove more disastrous than the governments of Fox and Calderon.

Boxed In

Mexico City is not a particularly tall city; the urban canyons of downtown New York or Boston do not exist here. Indeed, it's rather low-lying nature creates the insular neighborhood pockets that can make it possible to ignore the bustling sprawl that encircles you.

Except you can't see the sky.

Sure, I have seen stars and sunsets here, and dramatic creeping thunderheads. But never fully - the view is obstructed by buildings, billboards, powerlines. During a week when others were up in the mountains, the feeling of being somewhat boxed in was acute.